Webster's Warriors rise no surprise to Panthers players

Penrith players knew for two years they were housing one of the NRL's best-kept secrets at the foot of the mountains.

That while the NRL was going gaga over a long list of coaches in waiting, one of the most underrated in the business was running the Panthers' attack.

Of almost all coaching appointments of the past decade, Andrew Webster's at the Warriors attracted close to the least fanfare.

But in terms of a first-year coach, Webster's impact has been the biggest of any in 10 years.

Under Webster, the Warriors have achieved their best finish since his old boss Ivan Cleary was at the helm in 2007.

And in Saturday night's return to Bluebet Stadium, Webster can take the fourth-placed Warriors to the club's first finals win since Cleary's exit in 2011.

Webster's path to NRL head coaching has not been the traditional one.

He didn't play in the NRL, spent time as a player-coach in the United States with the Connecticut Wildcats and took up an academy job at Hull KR in England at age 24.

When Webster was signed by Penrith in late 2020 to replace Trent Barrett, fans questioned how signing the struggling Wests Tigers defensive coach could possibly bolster their attack.

"He was severely underrated going in as a head coach even this year," Panthers halfback Nathan Cleary told AAP. 

"I think he was underappreciated from the outside world. I have a lot of respect for him for that as well.

"He didn't want to be the guy that got the raps, but he worked extremely hard."

Under Webster, Penrith's attack improved in 2021.

And in 2022 when teams should have come up with answers on how to stop the Panthers, there was enough variation for back-to-back titles.

"A lot of credit still goes to Baz (Barrett), he created the system," Cleary said.

"But with Webby, he didn't have the ego where he wanted to change it.

"He didn't want to like flip it to be his way, but he added his own little touches to it that made us so much better. I think of it like he just put the icing on the cake.

"A lot of it was around detail, fundamental things. But things that hold up a big games. Last year's grand finals is a good example. Just little things that happen.

"I see similarities in (the Warriors), but the best thing about him is he's able to adapt to people's strengths and he works that out pretty quick.

"Then he creates a system around that."

Cleary isn't alone in that appraisal.

Almost to a man, Penrith's players say the same thing about Webster. It also speaks to the tales of player-led video sessions emanating out of Auckland this year.

It's why the Panthers aren't surprised they will meet Webster's Warriors in Saturday night's qualifying final, after a decade in the doldrums for the New Zealand-based club.

"He's been the commander in chief in everything they have achieved so far," Penrith winger Brian To'o said.

"He's definitely someone that hasn't received as much recognition for his work. But I put him up there as one of my mentors."

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